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Eugene Monroe: As America votes on pot, pro athletes want a say in their sport

Editor’s note: Cannabist columnist Eugene Monroe co-authored this post with his friend David Nathan, MD, DFAPA. Nathan is a Harvard-trained psychiatrist and educator in Princeton, N.J., and, like Monroe, Nathan is an outspoken proponent of change in how we treat the use of cannabis — both across the country and in the NFL. Nathan is the founder and board president of Doctors for Cannabis Regulation, the nation’s first and only physicians’ organization supporting the legalization of marijuana in the U.S.

We live in a world where opinions on marijuana are commonly fueled by a lack of education and false information.

Election Day is upon us, and while the nation is tuned in to the presidential race, nine states are deciding whether to legalize cannabis in some form. Five of those states (Arizona, California, Maine, Massachusetts and Nevada) are voting on full legalization, while another four (Arkansas, Florida, Montana and North Dakota) are deciding whether to permit medical marijuana.

Soon we may see nearly 25 percent of Americans living in a state where adults can buy cannabis without fear of being arrested.

This year represents a turning point in our nation’s failed prohibition of a plant that has clear medicinal properties and fewer negative health consequences than many legal drugs. It is also a year in which athletes have decided to speak out against the injustices that they face both socially and in their National Football League workplace.

The League continues to maintain its ban on cannabis, which continues to disrupt the careers and livelihood of many athletes. Playing football is painful, and to deal with the associated pain of the game, NFL doctors are prescribing opioids and anti-inflammatory drugs to athletes. Players are continually punished for the consumption of marijuana, and their only crime was to use a drug that is less addictive and less harmful than the opioids that team doctors use to help them cope with the wear and tear of the game.

Dr. Sue Sisley, a clinician and cannabis researcher in Arizona, has been an ally of athletes in many sports, working with teams to enable players to receive medical marijuana through “therapeutic use exemptions” (TUEs). While she’s found success in other leagues, there has never been a TUE for cannabis granted in the NFL.

She has worked with me (Eugene) on my efforts to end the cannabis ban, and she knows me (David) as a board member of DFCR. Understanding the potential for synergy between athletes and physicians on the issue of cannabis policy, she introduced the two of us, and a powerful collaboration was born.

The NFL has banned cannabis use for all its athletes, including those living in states where marijuana is legal. This is a microcosm of the problem with cannabis policies in society at large. The prohibition in both cases reflects a fundamental ignorance of the science of cannabis, which is generally less harmful for adults than cigarettes, alcohol and prescription pain medications.

Another similarity is found in the way that misguided policies on marijuana have disproportionately affected people of color, both in sports and across the United States. In sports, the discrepancy is seen in the top leagues of baseball, basketball, football and hockey. The prohibition of cannabis is cancerous, its effects multiplying. The most devastating effects of the cannabis ban in sports are seen in the homes of African-Americans athletes.

The majority of players in both the NFL and National Basketball Association are African-Americans, with the NFL at 69 percent and NBA at 74 percent. On the other hand, the two sports with few African-American players — Major League Baseball at 8 percent and the National Hockey League at 5 percent — do not suspend players who use marijuana. Both the NFL and NBA continue failed policies that suspend players for testing positive for marijuana use, which robs these athletes of precious playing time.

The ban on cannabis also robs players of freedom — the freedom to choose a safer alternative to opioid drugs.

Currently, there are 19 NFL players who have been suspended for drug infractions this season. About half of these suspensions are for marijuana use, and all of the athletes are people of color. In a league where many players believe that most of their peers use marijuana, this racial discrepancy is suspicious at best.

However, the implicit racial bias seen in cannabis prohibition goes far beyond the NFL. African-Americans are over four times more likely to be arrested for a marijuana offense compared with their white counterparts, despite similar usage rates. An arrest record prevents many African-Americans from getting a job, renting a home or accessing benefits and programs they may need to support themselves and their families.

There can be no doubt: The ban on cannabis contributes to racial disparities both on and off the field. It reflects poorly on the governance of the NFL as well as the United States.

What benefit have we seen from marijuana prohibition in football or in the nation? Over 22 million Americans use marijuana despite its illegality in most of the country, while an estimated 50-to-60 percent of NFL players are thought to be cannabis consumers.

If the purpose of prohibition was to prevent underage use, then that, too, is a failed effort. For decades, 80-to-90 percent of all 18 year olds have reported easy access to marijuana, in part because the point-of-sale is unregulated and dealers don’t check IDs. Over the same period of time, preventive education reduced the rates of underage alcohol and tobacco, while underage marijuana use rose.

Consider what this says about the effectiveness of prohibiting the adult use of so-called soft drugs.

The struggle to end the ban on cannabis in the NFL and the United States has fused two unlikely partners into a team focused on sound cannabis policy. Behind me (Eugene) are current and former NFL athletes who support my advocacy and bring attention to this injustice. And I (David) lead a group of nationally recognized physicians who want to legalize, regulate and tax marijuana.

Today we stand together at the line of scrimmage, ready to tackle the formidable forces of ignorance and inertia that still block the nation and the NFL from reaching the end zone of cannabis prohibition. We invite our fellow athletes and physicians to join us on the field, and we ask the rest of you to cheer us on to victory.